(No, this isn't music-related, but since I'm the AJC's resident gambling expert, I also handle our casino stories.)
I’ve never been so self-conscious about a sneeze.
But as I followed digital signage leading to the singular entry area at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort last week, I absent-mindedly sneezed, then panicked as I saw a couple of rows of masked employees manning traffic lanes a few feet in front of me.
Did they see me? Did they hear me? Are they going to think I’m sick and not allow me on site?
None of the above, as it turned out.
But the introduction to the “current normal” for casino-going was impressively efficient.
“Have you been sick?” the first masked man asked me? No. “Have you had COVID-19?” No. “OK, keep going.”
About 20 feet down the lane, my car approached a second masked guy, who said hello and pointed a thermometer at my forehead.
I looked at him expectantly, waiting for a “98.7, best number of the day!” or “You are welcome to enter and donate money!” But my temp remained a secret as he handed me a sealed, packaged mask and wristband, first asking if I was staying at the hotel (the bands are different colors for overnight guests and day trippers, both indicating temperatures have been checked).
That prompted the kind of “YES!” expected from anyone who usually travels at least monthly but has been grounded since the second week of March.
I spend a lot of time in casinos. Usually five or six trips a year to Las Vegas, three or four to Atlantic City and supplementary visits to Harrah’s Cherokee and its smaller sister property, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River (about an hour closer to metro Atlanta in Murphy, North Carolina).
Like any avid gambler, I was tick-tocking the days until our closest casinos resumed operations (both sites engaged in soft openings for invited guests on May 18, and opened to the general public on May 28), though I was somewhat trepidatious about what to expect regarding safety protocols.
For weeks, I scoured my usual gambling websites and message boards for tidbits about how casinos planned to cultivate a protected environment in the midst of a still-raging pandemic. Much like the concert industry that I cover on a full-time basis, casinos thrive on crowds, and managing throngs of people is incongruous to the stay-away-from-everyone recommendations we’re advised to endorse for the good of humanity.
But we also know there are conflicting mindsets about such guidelines, primarily wearing masks.
Both Harrah’s Cherokee properties require the use of masks by employees and guests. Period.
While most casino markets, including recently resuscitated Las Vegas, only suggest patrons wear them, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which owns the two properties (Harrah’s manages them), determined their guidelines.
How long it will continue is undetermined; Harrah’s Cherokee management said it will “work closely with the EBCI, (Harrah’s parent company) Caesars Entertainment and health experts to adjust our health and safety protocols.”
Personally, I’m as skeeved out about touching slot machine buttons as I am inhaling rogue droplets, so I accessorized my trusty “Star Wars” mask — I’m saving the one provided by the casino for another trip — with black latex gloves. Several other gamers favored this “casino-robber-chic” look as well, so for once, I felt stylishly aligned.
Inside the building, sanitizer stations beckoned every 100 feet or so. Signage alerted that elevator capacity should not exceed four people. A welcome sign initiated guests about limited seating at restaurants (all are open, sans the buffet) and the prohibition of smoking on the casino floor (at Harrah’s Cherokee, it’s allowed in the Rotunda area; at Valley River, in designated areas outside).
At check-in, the usual separate lines for higher-level Diamond and Seven Stars players have been temporarily removed and the sole line included markers every six feet to facilitate social distancing (management said they hope to add the dedicated lines back soon).
My weekday visit presented no issues booking a room. But, with only 554 rooms open (of 1,108 total) between the Creek Tower and three floors of the Soco Tower, weekends might be a challenge. The addition of hotel inventory — as well as increasing the current max capacity of about 3,000 people on the casino floor — will be determined by the EBCI, according to Harrah’s management.
As expected, housekeeping has increased its cleaning procedures and now disinfects all surfaces in the rooms after a guest checks-out. A Post-It-type note informing me that my room had been “cleaned and sealed for your protection” sat underneath the peephole of the door, so I’m not sure what, exactly, was sealed. Regardless, the room was clearly thoroughly cleansed and the removal of the usual pen and pad of paper was immediately noticed by someone who is always looking for a pen and pad of paper (for sanity purposes, management confirmed).
Arriving at the escalator down to the casino floor, the usual security checkpoint also included a flash of my wristband. The gaming area was bustling, despite the weeknight timeframe. Bartenders served drinks, cocktail waiters and waitresses roamed the floor, and even though about 1,700 of the 3,000 slot and video poker machines have been disabled, there was never a problem finding an open machine.
Let me also add: I’m the kind of casino-goer who hates crowds of people. I play video poker and slot machines instead of table games primarily because I don’t want to socially interact with anyone when I’m gambling (also, I can’t figure out craps, roulette is stupid and I’m too mathematically challenged for blackjack). Don’t ask me how I’m doing (because you really don’t care). Don’t ask me if “the machines are hitting” (Why does it matter? You’re not playing the same one as me). And please don’t share your conspiracy theories about the guy in the back room flipping a switch to change the payback percentages of the machines (educate yourself about the random number generator, please).
So having at least every other, and in some configurations, every two slot machines deactivated on the floor and at the bars meant no one could ever sit near me. I vote to maintain this setup forever.
Table games are limited to three players at each, but unlike some other casinos around the country, there are no Plexiglas barriers between players and dealers (the poker room is currently closed and a new location, along with a sportsbook, is under construction on the main floor).
When I returned home from my overnight escape, my husband, also a dedicated gambler, asked for a recap of my visit. Wasn’t it annoying wearing a mask all the time? Nope. In fact, I forgot about it until I tried to take a sip of the iced tea I was toting around, then simply lifted it for a moment. Did I have to wait for an open machine? Never, but again, this was a weeknight. Would I go back? Absolutely, I said. Because despite the minor changes and occasional limitations, I felt safe — and that’s more important than missing the buffet.
THE NEW NORMAL
Here are the answers to some common questions for guests of Harrah’s Cherokee (the Valley River location will abide by the same safety protocols).
Q: Are masks mandatory?
A: Yes, for all guests and employees.
Q: Are drinks being served?
A: Yes, on the casino floor and bars.
Q: Is smoking permitted?
A: Only in the Rotunda area at Harrah’s Cherokee and outdoors at Valley River, not on the casino floor.
Q: What is the current capacity for the casino floor?
A: An average of 3,000 people.
Q: How many of the casino’s 3,000 slots have been disabled?
A: Approximately 1,700.
Q: Which restaurants are open?
A: All restaurants, including Brio Tuscan Grille and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, are operating normal hours, but at reduced capacity. The food court is also open, but with modified arrangements (e.g., no self-serve doughnuts at Dunkin’, only bottled beverages available) and reduced seating. The buffet is closed.
Q: Is the Diamond Lounge (for higher-tiered players) open?
A: Yes, but only for reduced-price drinks at the bar; there is no food.
Source: Harrah’s Cherokee management
IF YOU GO
Harrah‘s Cherokee Hotel and Casino, 777 Casino Drive, Cherokee, North Carolina. 828-497-7777, harrahscherokee.com.
Directions from metro Atlanta: Take I-85 North to I-985 until you run into U.S. 441 North. Once you reach Dillsboro, North Carolina , take U.S. 74 West and follow signs to Cherokee (Exit 74). Take U.S. 441 North to Cherokee for about 4 miles and take a right at the first traffic light. Harrah‘s Cherokee Casino is at the next intersection, about 1 mile. Approximate drive time from metro Atlanta: 2 hours and 45 minutes to 3 hours.
Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel, 777 Casino Parkway, Murphy, North Carolina. 828-656-1679, caesars.com.
Directions from metro Atlanta: I-75 north to I-575 north to Ga. 60 north. Take Ga./N.C. 60 north to U.S. 64/U.S. 74 east. Turn right on Casino Parkway, cross the new bridge and follow the curved hill. Approximate drive time from metro Atlanta: 2 hours and 15 minutes.
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